The intersection of retail and AV technology is seeing fast lanes in all directions. And it’s not just the Apple Store: Retailers of all types, chains and mom-and-pops, are all implementing technology platforms that rely on AV to ever-greater extents. Vend, a New Zealand-based retail technology vendor that offers a cloud-based point-of-sale system designed to help small- and medium-sized businesses track sales and inventory, predicts that, “Major retailers will implement immersive experiences with the use of large, interactive displays that are meant to fully engross customers to the point where they…forget that they’re inside a store.” It cites examples such as the Nike Fuel Station in London, which has huge LCD displays that mirror shoppers as they move through the store. Similarly, Gucci recently set up five columns of super high resolution displays that enable shoppers to browse various products using hand gestures.
“Ultimately, we’ll get to the point where the shopper doesn’t see the hardware at all; you’ll look right through the screen and not even know it’s there,” suggested Bill Craig, Vice President of Business Development at AV integrator Logic Integration.
But first, that hardware has to get into the retail environment. One of the ways that’s happening, said Dave Silberstein, Director of Commercial Marketing at Crestron, is through control systems. “Control becomes a requirement once you reach a certain level of [technological] complexity, and control then lets you make your technology more sophisticated and complex,” he offered. “As stores begin to engage more deeply with digital signage and messaging, you’re not going to be able to just pay some kid to turn the lights on and off anymore.”
Silberstein cited the Microsoft Store’s use of Crestron’s Digital Media 64×64 video switchers to automatically manage its digital signage systems. This gives each store some control over what the screens display based on what’s taking place locally, but also gives corporate ultimate central control over its messaging. The large American Eagle store in New York City’s Times Square can self-adjust to a degree, based on time of day and even local weather conditions. “We’re seeing the same level of switching and control coming into retail that we already encounter in advanced corporate boardrooms and conference rooms,” Silberstein said. “This is not something a store clerk can do; you need properly programmed automation systems.”
Silberstein laid out the progression of how retailers adapt to higher levels of automation, with most new systems used in flagship locations, then extended into boutique stores to test them on a wider scale and in front of a more varied audience before they’re rolled out throughout a retailer’s entire chain. This includes digital signage, lighting designs and audio used for entertainment and messaging. But it all comes down to control in the end, he said. “Even in the case of franchises, where the store owner has a lot more latitude, [corporate] headquarters will still tell them what they need to do, and automation control is a big way they’ll be able to maintain order,” he stated.
Digital signage will be a huge area of growth in retail, industry observers predict. “Digital signage improves the customer experience by creating options for retailers to personalize offerings, thereby separating themselves from a commodity-based, price-driven relationship,” stated Mike Tippets, Vice President of the Business Solutions Group, North American Division at Hughes, in a blog post on Wired.com underscoring the wider awareness of digital signage as a retail tool. Tippets went on to point out several areas where digital signage will overtake conventional signage in retail environments, such as for endcap and shelf-edge displays, as well as how it can create virtual extensions to a store, such as the “endless aisle kiosk,” which lets retailers use digital signage to show more product than their square footage allows. This also lets customers look through more inventory and options than can be displayed on the show floor.
What’s also good news is that digital signage in retail may be desirable enough for retail customers to be willing to pay a premium for it. A study by IT giant Oracle in Europe found that 81% of consumers surveyed were willing to pay more for a superior customer experience, with nearly half (44%) willing to pay a premium of more than 5% for that. Improvement of the overall customer experience (40%) and providing quick access to information and making it easier for customers to ask questions (35%) were cited as key drivers for spending more.
Ultra HD, aka 4K high-definition video, seems poised to refresh the digital signage market, particularly in retail. “We really feel that 4K will have an impact at retail, especially among a growing number of brands that have access to 4K or greater content and want to create exceptionally compelling in-store experiences,” stated Jennifer Davis, Vice President of Marketing at Planar Systems. “These include luxury retailers with footage from runway shows, lifestyle brands with custom video shot alongside their advertising campaigns, and a host of retailers that are using stock nature video to bring the outdoors into their store environments.
“We have had customers using large videowalls, with resolutions higher than Ultra HD, for quite some time, and the results have been very positive,” she continued. “The store rollouts continue based on the success of the pilots and the store designs enabled by high-quality video. We expect a lot of adoptions in 2014, and for 2015 to be even bigger.”
Digital signage has significant potential for AV integrators beyond installation and integration in retail. Logic Integrations’ Bill Craig mentioned the Nella’s Yogurt shops that Logic Integration has done work for as an example of how this pursuit of quality will be pervasive and reach down into the Main Street small-business echelons, and how integrators will have to adapt to accommodate the trend.
The small Colorado chain uses its digital signage system as both a menu board and an engagement tool, announcing birthdays and other occasions, as well as providing nutritional information. “We not only did the signage but also helped them with the content,” said Craig. “There is a tremendous opportunity there.” According to Craig, his company has considered hiring a dedicated digital content developer, to the point where they interviewed several candidates before deciding, instead, to partner with outside content developers as a service for clients.
“Showrooming” entered the lexicon as a verb in recent years, expressing the fact that consumers were using physical retail spaces to get hands-on experience with products and then doing their actual shopping on the internet. Ron Prier, owner of RPAV, a consultancy and integration company in Bowersville GA, is in the process of helping several retailers turn that to their advantage with the installation of large custom touchscreens. Shoppers can look at and handle various products on the showroom floor, but none are in the stores’ inventories; instead, they use the touchscreens to order the products onsite, which are then delivered to the customer’s home within a day or two.
“You end up with a much smaller store that’s much more efficient,” said Prier. AV installed in retail environments accounts for as much as 30% of his revenue. “They come in to touch the products and then they can have an internet shopping experience in the same store. The touchscreen keeps them there. The store no longer has to keep a huge inventory, which cuts down on the size of the store, and lets them keep more different products out on the floor.”
Prier said that he is in discussion with several retail clients for the system, whose names he declined to disclose. However, he added that the proof-of-concept has been validated by more than 500 similar installations he’s done in the hospitality sector. “When we started doing that several years ago, touchscreens weren’t nearly as available and affordable as they are now,” said Prier. “Now it’s a very cost-effective solution.”
The challenge, he added, isn’t in the hardware, but in the back end: programming and control, and the ability to create a user-friendly interface in the store and connect it to an enterprise-level infrastructure for distribution and delivery. Those same touchscreens, when outfitted with cameras, can also add facial recognition to the technology mix, something that Prier said is likely around the corner.
It’s a given that AV’s future in the retail sphere will be inextricably intertwined with social media. That’s because members of Gen Y (aka Millennials) are poised to became the prime shopping demographic, and engaging this tech-savvy cohort will take plenty of both. A good example of the growing importance of Gen Y to retailers is found in recent moves by big-box store, Target. The chain is belatedly entering the mobile-app realm, but not by abandoning its physical presence. For instance, a new app feature being beta tested in 41 stores allows users to build shopping lists that tell them exactly where in a store to find a specific item. Target will also replace its in-store wedding and baby registry kiosks with iPads connected to Target.com, and its existing scanning guns will be replaced with iPod touches.
There may be opportunities there for AV integrators, but integrators will also have to assess large retailers’ existing relationships with various VARs that already provide turnkey systems services for them, particularly IT vendors that are already inside the stores providing scanning, inventory management, POS and other technology stations. According to Crestron’s Silberstein, the larger opportunity here could be for AV integrators to partner with IT vendors. He cited ePlus, a large IT technology reseller, which created its own AV integration division. “It’s a great example of convergence in the retail area,” he offered.
When it comes to audio in the retail environment, talking signage is gaining some traction, such as LG-MRI, the joint venture between Korean consumer electronics giant LG and MRI, an Atlanta-area developer of outdoor digital signage. The company’s largest system, an 84-inch display that uses motion sensing to let viewers interact with it, has four-inch speakers in its base that produce tones that give users the feedback they need, so they know that the touchless cursor is working.
But the ongoing news continues to be the extension of low-frequency response in store sound systems. WAVE Audio Video Enterprises, based in Columbus OH, provides sound systems for Abercrombie & Fitch stores nationally. CEO Don Wilson said they’re mainly using Bose 302 ceiling speakers and MB4 subwoofers, also mounted in ceilings, as well as some JBL and Tannoy ceiling speakers. In the chain’s newest store at the Del Amo Mall in Torrance CA, WAVE installed JBL MTC-12 12-inch subs, the largest they’ve used yet. It’s a reflection of the large culture’s musical shifts, which include the mainstreaming of electronic dance music (EDM) and the inclusion of more hip-hop-style bass in other genres, including pop and country music.
Like many stores catering to Millennials, A&F uses music to create an enticing environment for that group of shoppers. “After lighting, audio is the next most important thing on their list,” offered WAVE’s Wilson. He said that the stores will play music at levels as high as 90dB (C-scale weighted), with the volume varying according to the ambient noise level in the store, and it can go as much as 3dB to 6dB higher during holiday and back-to-school times.
“That would be really loud for typical retail, but not for this demographic,” stated Wilson, who also has done audio systems for JC Penney and Cracker Barrel. The higher volume creates the immersive environment that Millennials consider the baseline for life. “They are in a completely immersive environment at all times, with headphones and iPads and an Xbox always on,” added Wilson, who has two college-age children. “As they become a bigger part of the shopping demographic, retail has to cater to their needs.”
As dazzling as some of the AV technology may be for retail, other voices caution that quality has to be maintained in order to achieve a sense of authenticity with customers. “It’s less about more technology—though there will be plenty of that—as it is about higher-quality AV,” proclaimed Bill Craig. This will come about, he said, as a function of steadily increasing consumer expectations. “What consumers have in their homes is what they want to see everywhere else,” he said, referencing the term “techorating,” a buzzword attributed to interior designer Doug Wilson as a rubric for the convergence of home technology and home décor.
“That’s why you’re seeing Bose speakers in stores now instead of the cheap little $8.00 ‘Frisbee’ speakers that we had for so long. It’s all about the quality of the experience in retail that will count. It has to be: Expectations are higher than ever.”